Borrowed Relevance: How to Engage Your Audience When You Have a Boring Brand

“There are two kinds of brands – brands that people talk about and brands that people don’t talk about.” ~ Josh Bernoff, Forrester Research Analyst and co-author of Groundswell.

Sexy brands (Apple, Facebook, and Harley Davidson) are ‘talked about’ brands – they sell themselves. Boring brands are tough because people don’t care about them. Marketers of such brands have to figure out how to get people talking about something they really don’t care about.

Is there a way around this?

The answer is “Yes!’ Borrowed relevance is a fairly new concept proposed by Josh Bernoff, in which he suggests that boring brands must encourage people to talk about something – even though the conversation is not about the brand itself.

There are several ways to do this:

  • One way is to identify your organization’s core values and then start a conversation about them. Those values might be community, work-life balance, diversity or empowerment. Liberty Mutual (from the boring category of insurance) launched the Responsibility Project as “the place to discuss doing the right thing.” By creating a platform where moral decision-making was the trending topic , Liberty Mutual shrouded themselves in relevance and (more importantly) social conversation.
  • Another way is to invite your community to talk about their own set of circumstances. Johnson & Johnson for example created a Facebook page for mothers with ADHD kids. They figured that they couldn’t spark an engaging conversation about their ADHD drug. But they correctly concluded that sufferers of the ailment (and their families) have their own set of interesting problems and why not talk about that? Their Facebook audience is a whopping 19,000 fans strong!
  • The other way that ‘borrowed relevance’ could be applied is to start a conversation about an entirely different brand with the intention of ‘borrowing’ some of their appeal for yourself. In 2007 Doritos invited customers to create their own Superbowl ads –  Turns out, that Superbowl (or any ad contest for that matter) are more exciting concepts than corn chips.

So if you’re a business that’s selling a product that doesn’t generate much interest, then the key is to borrow something that is relevant to people (topic, issue or concept), create a platform to discuss it while treading lightly on your own branding. This way, you will be able to identify your own (few) brand enthusiasts who will become very influential in spreading the word about your organization.

5 Content Strategies for Boring Healthcare Brands

If people aren’t talking about you, they’re not talking about you for a reason. And the reason isn’t that they dislike you. They’re not talking about you because you’re boring.” ~ Seth Godin

The formidable challenge for healthcare marketers of boring brands is that you have to present content that is remarkable and interesting, even when your product or service —on the face of it—is not.

Let’s face it. Not every healthcare marketer has the advantage of selling sexy products such as face lifts, tummy tucks, or breast implants. But the fact is, boring products solve legitimate problems too. Extracting wisdom teeth or doing colonoscopies may not sound terribly exciting, but these services are extremely important, even helping save people’s  lives.

So, how do you get prospective patients or caregivers excited about the services you provide?

The key is to tell (many) original, meaningful stories, such as this one from Cleveland Clinic:

Every healthcare brand has a unique story about its origin, people and experiences. The solution is to find an authentic theme, apply creative imagination and tell your story in a way that will attract and retain people’s attention. What was widely perceived to be boring could become inspiring or at least interesting to a large group of people.

If your healthcare brand is one that solves a problem but doesn’t easily spark the imagination, here are five brand content strategies you can use to change the way people perceive you.

#1. Come to the rescue

Just like good brands, good content solves problems. Boring brands have the same opportunity as everyone to share information that improves customers’ lives or helps them to do their jobs better.

Roberts and Durkee knows this. In 2008, this run-of-the-mill law firm used content marketing to become the de facto consumer advocate for victims of the Chinese drywall problem that hit the US market toward the middle of the decade.

They created a website/blog called chinesedrywallproblem.com to help thousands of Florida homeowners whose homes were built with toxic drywall. The website provided pertinent information such as how to identify contaminated drywall, the toxins’ health implications, and the victims’ legal rights. This content strategy established Roberts and Durkee as the expert in Chinese drywall problems and resulted in tremendous business opportunities for the firm.

To create content that solves problems, ask yourself:

  • What kinds of health-related emergencies are happening in my community?
  • Are there particular groups in need of someone to speak up for them?
  • How can I create content that helps them resolve these problems?

#2. Reach out to your community

If your product does not generate excitement, create content that showcases your readers’ lifestyles, interests and passions instead. Focus your content on the consumer rather than the product and encourage conversations that resonate with your community.

Procter & Gamble – the makers of Gillette razors, Head & Shoulders shampoo and other everyday brands – created ManOfTheHouse.com as “the real man’s magazine,” packed with compelling advice on guy-to-guy topics such as money, careers, gadgets, parenting and, of course, sex.

The site specifically targets young dads and connects with them via Facebook and Twitter as well. By December 2010, manofthehouse.com attracted over half a million unique visitors per month.

To reach your community with your content, ask yourself:

  • Who do I want to attract?
  • What is their lifestyle?
  • What are their interests and preferences?
  • How can I provide a forum for them to discuss these issues in a conversational, entertaining fashion?

#3. Do something completely unexpected

No matter what kind of healthcare product or service you offer, there’s no reason to be boring. Any product can be presented in a way that is interesting, appealing, even surprising!

Agilent Technologies produces measurement instruments that help scientists, researchers and engineers measure variables in chemical analysis, life sciences and electronics. Ho hum, right? On the contrary.

Going completely against type, Agilent resisted the typical dry technicalities in favor of the truly unexpected: a video puppet show. The highly engaging Agilent Puppet Chemistry is so far removed from the company’s brand image, it immediately disarms, intrigues and captures the audience.

And that audience consists of scientists and chemists who work in research and forensic labs – an audience that is relying more heavily on the internet to research instruments and platforms. This technique proved to be highly successful for Agilent, increasing traffic to their website and encouraging more prospects to click through in search of more information.

Want to go against the grain?

Brainstorm a list of adjectives that describe your healthcare brand and then research their opposites. For example if your organization has a serious, demanding and dull environment, you could research ideas that are entertaining, relaxing and fresh. Then create a mix of content that matches those ideas and presents your company in a totally unexpected way.

#4. Play to your strengths

A lot of people equate content with writing. But writing (blogs, e-books, white papers, books, etc.) is just one way to create content – and it’s not for everyone.

No one knows this better than Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of Wine Library TV. Gary, by his own admission, couldn’t write to save his life. So he doesn’t. He video blogs…and he does it extremely well.

His very informal yet highly energetic style, frequently described as an unpretentious, gonzo approach to wine appreciation, offers a stark contrast to everyone else’s dry, conservative approach to wine culture. Most wine bloggers simply publish a written article and then wait for visitors to subscribe. Gary, on the other hand, loves the camera, is passionate about wine and comes across like a familiar dinner guest, relaxing in your living room.

To play to your own strengths, ask yourself:

  • How do you prefer to express yourself? If you enjoy being in front of the camera, try video blogging and inject your own personality into the content.  If you prefer to look people in the eye and feed off of their energy, speaking engagements or training opportunities might be your vehicle.
  • Do people easily recognize your gifts or talents? Perhaps you’ve been told that you have a ‘golden voice’ or a ‘way with words.’  Maybe they’re onto something. Explore your talents and find a complementary outlet to express them.

#5. Encourage people to talk…about anything

Josh Bernoff, Forrester Research Analyst and co-author of Groundswell, recommends that boring brands encourage people to talk–even if it isn’t about the brand itself. By borrowing a relevant topic and encouraging conversations about it, boring brands become part of the conversation.

Social media presents the perfect opportunity to apply this “borrowed relevance,” as Bernoff calls it, because conversations are already taking place there that are not product-centric, pushy or self-promotional.

A good example is Liberty Tax, a tax service franchise (yawn)…with a Facebook audience of over 6,000 people!  A quick look at their Wall reveals how they use a variety of tactics to engage their customers and create a lively atmosphere. They discuss Groupon deals, hold photo contests, show appreciation to different members of the community (teachers, policemen and firefighters, etc.), and so on. They also make taxes fun (no, really!) by giving away free tax apps, and offering advice and tips on little-known tax credits, refunds, etc.

Without a doubt, stories are the key to a boring brand’s problems. After all, if you don’t have a remarkable product, you might as well have remarkable content. Don’t you agree?

Your Turn:

Is your healthcare business fighting against being boring? What strategies have you employed?

First Things First – Content Strategy Before Social Strategy

At the heart of social media is the desire that every consumer has to talk about something interesting, compelling and relevant and to share that information with his or her friends.

The question marketers must ask themselves is: “What makes my brand so interesting that people will want to talk about it and share it with their friends?” (Even boring brands have something interesting to say!)

You can’t succeed in social media if you don’t have something interesting to say.

At this point in your social media experience, you (hopefully) understand that social media marketing is not just about having a Facebook page or a Twitter profile.

Social media is the vehicle for communicating and distributing interesting stories (content) across the internet. In turn, readers share the content they think is compelling.

What does content strategy have to do with it?

The purpose of content strategy is to facilitate the consistent delivery of interesting stories. The end result is that you will attract and retain the attention of the targeted audience that you want to reach.

Imagine for a moment that you’re invited to pitch your business to a room full of potential investors. They’re willing to hear your story and let you persuade them with your ideas. How much time do you think you would need to prepare for such an opportunity? A week? A month? More?

The point is you’d be foolish to simply show up, stand on the podium and say whatever comes to mind.

And yet, most businesses do exactly that when it comes to social media. Given the opportunity to present their brand to an online audience of potential customers, they simply show up without preparing a compelling message.

What a wasted opportunity.

Preparation is important because social media is a very active space. There’s a lot to do and a ton of conversations taking place. It is a very distracting environment, and everyone has a very short attention span.

You have to figure out what kind of conversation you’re going to spark that will make people pay attention to you because in social media attention is very hard to get (or retain for that matter).

Your competition isn’t the guy or gal who sells the same stuff that you do. Your competition is every person, every brand, every church, every small business, every big technology company, every politician and every celebrity who has something interesting to say.

That’s why it’s important to have a plan (content strategy). And that’s why your plan must be put in place before you show up on any social media channel.

How do I approach my own content strategy?

As you brainstorm your own content strategy, ask yourself these questions:

  • What niche do I want to be known for?  Example: Chiropractor.
  • What are my customers’ challenges? Example: Back-pain.
  • What kind of content do they consume? Example: Articles and videos
  • How can I create interesting yet consistent content that will attract new customers and retain old ones? Example: Create a blog on my website showing them how to manage back injury and how to treat back pain (featuring both text and video).  Publish weekly.
  • When all is said and done, what business results do I want to achieve for all my hard work? Example: More clients and more sales.
  • How will I know if this stuff is working? Example: By periodically measuring how many new customers and how many new sales, I have made since executing my content strategy.

Do I need a social strategy to make this work?

Indeed, you can achieve your business objectives through your content strategy without social media marketing. For example, visitors using long-tail search terms (e.g. lower back pain or injury-related back pain) can certainly find your content through Google or Bing (although this doesn’t happen overnight).

However, social media marketing can help you distribute your content much faster and reach more people than your website. But, your social strategy doesn’t need to be complicated, and it certainly doesn’t need the help of a ‘guru.’ It’s simply a plan that will work seamlessly with your content strategy to help you achieve your business goals.

To do this, first understand how consumers behave online:

  • They meet in different places (Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube, Digg);
  • They read, share and discuss different content (blogs, videos, podcasts, music);
  • They evaluate brands based on content. “People buy products to accomplish something” ~ Clayton Christensen author of It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid. A brand’s content needs to explain what that ‘something’ is.
  • They are connected with one another and influence each other’s purchasing decisions (e.g.GAP logo story)

In other words, online conversations are the new market place.

The conversation opportunity

Organizations that understand this behavior are able to communicate directly with consumers and influence their perception of their brands. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Think about where your customers are located online and join those communities.
  • Establish a listening campaign to figure out who’s doing the talking and what’s being said.
  • Consider how you will connect with the more influential ‘conversationalists’ within those communities. Do you need to create your own Facebook page or Linkedin profile? Or do you need to comment regularly on select blogs? Use these channels to interact with your community by asking questions (surveys), participating and contributing to conversations (comments/discussion forums) and sharing your expertise (your content).
  • Share whatever is going on in your offline world with your online community (pictures and videos).
  • Reach out to other bloggers (guest blogging).
  • Respond quickly to comments and feedback on your own blog.

Quick recap: Content marketing is enhanced by social media but can also survive without it. Social media on the other hand, would not be popular without interesting, informative or humorous content. Before entering the social media space, you need a plan to figure out how to deliver interesting content on a consistent basis so that you may attract and retain the attention of your target audience. That is your content strategy.

**Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Content Marketing Institute blog on May 9th, 2011. The original author is Patricia Redsicker.